Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ukraine Day 5 – From Odessa with Love

The experience on Monday, the fifth day of our tour, actually started the evening of the fourth day. On Sunday, we spent most of the day on a bus from Lviv to Kyiv. After arriving in the capital of Ukraine, we got right to work.

Sunday night, we were invited to the home of the Consular General to meet local LGBTQ activists, Embassy staff, and the Qwerty Queer Chorus from Odessa. We were to workshop and perform with Qwerty the next day, and this was a chance to connect more socially. Cocktails turned into a friendly “sing off,” and it was love at first song. What was most remarkable about Qwerty was the guttural strength and power that emerged from the small ensemble. Only six of the sixteen singers were able to travel to Kyiv this week, and I heard more life experience in their voices than I was prepared for. Knowing nothing about the singers themselves, and nearly nothing about Odessa, I was hearing their life stories measure by measure.

The next morning was scheduled and coveted free time. Some of the group took a walking tour of Kyiv with one of our new friends we had met the night prior. For me, this much needed re-energizing time as I took my own walkabout. I spent a great deal of my childhood walking through old churches with my parents, and apparently it’s a hard habit to quit. St. Sophia is one of the more famous churches in Kyiv, dating back to the 11th century. But since this isn’t a travel blog, suffice it to say you should see it if you’re in Kyiv.

We spent the rest of the day at Queer Home Kyiv, the local LGBT center. I don’t know if it’s for safety or due to lack of funds, but the center is located in a hard-to-find back alley partial basement. Once you enter, the space is remarkably big, with unmatched donated furniture, protest posters on the wall, and an oft-used coffee maker. Here we ate lunch with Qwerty. The romance was timid at first, but both choruses quickly fell hard when we began sharing our history, warm up techniques, and repertoire with each other.

In the weeks leading up to this tour, the Embassy had suggested that we check out the song Chervona Ruta. It’s an anthem of Ukraine, and it’s beautiful. We added our own spin to it with vocal percussion – a technique that immediately caught the ear of Qwerty. Workshopping this anthem with Qwerty was powerful, and there was a feeling of long lost kinship the entire afternoon. Performing it together later that evening at a celebration of International Day Against Homophobia at the Dutch Embassy solidified the deal. GMCW will always have a bond with the Qwerty Queer Chorus of Odessa. You can read more about Qwerty here.

Chervona Ruta - GMCW + Qwerty Queer Chorus
Dutch Embassy in Kyiv

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Redefining Dignity in Ukraine

The Orthodox Catholic Church seems to be pretty influential in Ukraine on the social and political front. So, it is all the more impressive that an Orthodox Bishop was present for the first part of our concert at the Philharmonic on Friday. I’m speculating a bit, but I would guess that the weight of the US Embassy letterhead provided encouragement. We’ve encountered many ways this week in which the US Embassy is using its influence for good when it comes to LGBTQ issues in Ukraine.

Case in point - on the Saturday of our tour, we were invited to a BBQ on the campus of the Catholic University outside of Lviv in honor of Memorial Day. By inviting a gay chorus to an event with US, Ukrainian and Catholic leadership present, the Embassy isn’t afraid to push a few unconventional conversations forward. While governments can be risk averse when it comes to foreign policy, we have experienced an Embassy in Ukraine that is nimble and unafraid to dream.

Our original invitation to the BBQ was to sing a few songs including the US National Anthem. We later learned there was misunderstanding by the church surrounding our identity as a gay group. We saw the frustrated Embassy staff scramble to honor the relationship they have with the church as well as with GMCW – an impossible situation because Orthodox Catholic doctrine is in direct opposition to GMCW’s mission. The church, un-shockingly, didn’t want to acknowledge our gay identity.

You might think there was an impulse to grab our bags and leave, angered and hurt. Most people at the BBQ already knew our story, so accepting the altered invitation would just allow the church continue its head in the sand tradition. This begged a natural question: were we more likely to reverse centuries of dogma that day, or chip away at the armor…maybe influence one person? It was a split second decision we made collectively, and I couldn’t be more proud of Potomac Fever for realizing that we can’t change hearts if we’re not in the room. Even if our hosts didn’t have the capacity to move as much as we wanted, the needle always moves through person-to-person interaction.

Our partnership with the US Embassy has already caused a stir. Like many parts of this tour, we won’t know the aftereffect of this particular experience with the Catholic University for some time. But we do know that a gay chorus (known, if not acknowledged) performed twice for Orthodox Church leadership in as many days. In Ukraine that is a leap forward. I won’t ever defend or make excuses for an institution whose doctrine and actions are discriminatory. Instead, I lift up a group of singers whose true colors of compassion, cultural understanding, and dignity were ablaze.